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Race-Based Academic Goals: An Unforeseen Result of Option A in No Child Left Behind Waivers?

November 15, 2012

Noel Roycroft

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Florida catapulted itself into a controversy that elicited comparisons to a bygone era of segregated education this past October when its State Board of Education voted to approve ethnicity and race-based academic targets under its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver.  The targets are part of the State Board of Education’s 2012-2018 Strategic Plan and require lower academic goals for African Americans, Latinos, English Language Learners, American Indians, and students with disabilities than their white and Asian American counterparts.  Consequently, since the October vote, Florida’s Board of Education has been rightly criticized for upholding negative stereotypes and sending a disturbing message that the state simply does not expect as much from its minority students.

What these commentators have largely overlooked, however, is the fact that Florida is not alone in adopting race-based academic standards as part of a NCLB waiver and that the federal government is partially to blame for creating new state systems that measure accountability by incorporating lower expectations for students based on their race and ethnicity.  In short, Florida, like eleven other states, chose the federally created Option A in its approved waiver application, and Option A necessarily results in race-based academic standards.

No Child Left Behind’s Requirements and the Move Towards Waivers

In September 2011 the Obama Administration, under mounting pressure due to NCLB’s requirement that 100% of students reach proficiency in Math and English Language Arts by 2014, initiated a program to grant states waivers from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as amended by NCLB.  Simply put, NCLB required all schools to have the same goals, called Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) for every student, regardless of whether the student fit into a “subgroup” for African American, Asian American, Latino, white, Native American, low-income, English Language Learner students and/or students with disabilities.

Many have criticized NCLB as incentivizing lower academic standards, promoting limited curriculum, focusing on absolute success or failure at the expense of student growth, being unrealistic, and over-identifying schools for improvement.  Notwithstanding the many valid criticisms that can be laid at the feet of NCLB, however, the law does require that the same academic standards apply to all student subgroups and accordingly sends a strong message that our nation’s government expects that all students, regardless of their race or ethnicity, are capable of achieving academic excellence.

When announcing the new waivers the Obama administration explained that states need “flexibility” in order to “close achievement gaps, promote rigorous accountability, and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.” Yet, despite the animating reasons behind the NCLB waivers to close the achievement gap, the administration has managed to allow for various state systems that set lower academic standards for minority students.  These new systems fly in the face of NCLB’s intent to achieve academic excellence for all students, regardless of race and ethnicity.

Option A Results in Race-Based Academic Standards

In order to receive a waiver, states are required to “set ambitious but achievable annual measurable objectives.”  The waiver application allows for three options: A, B, or C. Option A requires states to “set AMOs in annual equal increments toward a goal of reducing by half the percentage of students in the ‘all students’ group and in each subgroup who are not proficient within six years.”  If a state chooses Option A they are required to use “current proficiency rates based on assessments administered in the 2010-2011 school year as the starting point for setting” new AMOs.

In contrast, Option B requires the electing state to “set AMOs that increase in annual equal increments and result in 100 percent of students achieving proficiency” by the 2019-2020 school year.  The baseline or starting point for the new AMOs is “average statewide proficiency based on assessments administered in the 2010-2011 school year.”  Finally, Option C is the catch-all.  It requires electing states to use any other method that is “educationally sound and results in ambitious but achievable AMOs” for all schools and subgroups.

Florida, now embroiled in controversy, chose Option A, as did many other states.  Understanding Option A sheds light on how any state that chose it would necessarily have different AMOs for different races and ethnicities.  First, Option A requires that states cut in half the percentage of non-proficient students for all subgroups in six years.  Second, it requires that 2010-2011 test scores serve as the baseline.  Importantly, unlike Option B, it does not require an average of all students as the baseline.  Therefore, if certain subgroups, such as Latino and African American students, scored lower than white and Asian American students on their 2010-2011 assessments, the Latino and African American students start at a lower baseline. Accordingly, even if their non-proficiency rates are cut in half by 2017, the final goal will still be less proficient Latino and African American students than white and Asian American students.

To make this clearer, consider Delaware’s waiver proposal:

Delaware's waiver proposal

This chart comes from page 62 of Delaware’s approved waiver request.  It depicts Delaware’s new AMOs, under Option A, for English Language Arts over the next six years.  Notice that only 74.7% of African American students are expected to be proficient in English Language Arts by 2017, while 87.3% of white students are expected to be proficient by 2017.  This is because the 2011 baseline for African American students is 49.3% meaning that 50.7% of African American students in 2010-2011 were not proficient in ELA.  Accordingly, Delaware is required under Option A to ensure that no more than 23.35% of African American students are not proficient in ELA by 2017 (50.7/2 = 23.35).  In comparison, 74.6% of white students were proficient in ELA in 2010-2011, meaning that Delaware has only to ensure that 12.7% of white students are non-proficient in 2017 in order to cut the non-proficient rate in half.

To its credit, Florida alters the above formula somewhat by actually requiring higher growth rates for its subgroups with the lowest percentage of proficient students.  Florida’s end goal is to have 100% proficiency for all students by 2022-23, three years after Option B’s requirement for 100% proficiency.

The Problem with Option A and Race-Based Standards

Imagine you are the parent of an African American student and that your child’s teacher has just informed you that if your child scores a 75% on a test he or she will receive the same grade as a white student that scores 87% or higher.  The sole reason the teacher gives for this discrepancy is that your child is African American.  Would you be comfortable with this?  Would you accept the implicit message that your child is somehow inferior and is expected to achieve less than others based solely on their race?  Now replace the teacher with not just the state, but the federal government.  Does that somehow make it more legitimate?  The answer should be a resounding “no.”   

As many have noted expectations are important.  Sending a message that less is expected of certain students based on their race, ethnicity, or income level defies the core concept behind NCLB: that every student has the ability to learn and achieve academically.

Option A’s result is more disturbing when we consider its effect on our already largely segregated school systems.  The reality of education today is that schools are still largely racially segregated.  If we are to accept that different races should have different academic standards, what effect does that have on schools that have largely minority student populations?  Not only will our schools be separate, but now they have unequal expectations.

If a teacher carried an explicit or implicit bias that a student is less able to achieve based on their race, most would be quick to condemn that teacher.  We should apply no less of a critical standard to our federal government.

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